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Fox Searchlight Sued by “Black Swan” Unpaid Interns for Wage and Hour Violations

October 18, 2011

Our Riverside, California employment lawyers blog recently discussed the issue of wage and hour violations that surround unpaid internships in the workplace, after a recent Department of Labor (DOL) investigation discovered the rampant exploitation of unpaid interns by employers--taking advantage of interns who often have difficulty finding paid employment.

According to the DOL's Wage and Hour Division, a for-profit employer does not have many options to offer an unpaid internship and still follow federal wage and hour regulations. The DOL states that although unpaid internships are common in the non-profit and arts work environments, internships in the for-profit workplace that are not paid can lead to intern exploitation, along with violations of federal wage and hour violations.

The New York Times recently reported that two men who worked on Fox Searchlight Pictures' Oscar-winning movie "Black Swan" as unpaid interns, have challenged the film industry's generally accepted unpaid internship practice, by suing the studio for violating minimum wage and overtime laws during the making of the film.

According to the lawsuit, Fox Searchlight relies on unpaid interns to perform tasks like preparing coffee for the production office, taking out the trash, or taking and delivering lunch orders for the studio's production staff. These are all employment duties that, according to the plaintiffs, should be performed by paid employees--not unpaid interns who apply for internships to gain the kind of educational experience that federal labor and employment rules require in order to give employers unpaid intern exemptions.

The lawsuit states that the unpaid interns are an integral part of Fox Searchlight's labor force on the film productions--and as interns they function in important roles as bookkeepers, production assistants, as well as performing janitorial and secretarial work. The plaintiffs state that the responsibilities of the unpaid interns are the same duties of entry-level employees, and the employers are violating wage and hour laws by not compensating the interns properly for their work time, in order to keep costs low and improve profit margins. Fox Searchlight is being accused of misclassifying the workers as unpaid interns, and denying them the employment benefits that the federal law gives to paid employees.

Fox Searchlight is also being accused of acting illegally, by not meeting the DOL's six federal criteria for unpaid internships, which as our Carson employment lawyers blog discussed previously, requires that the internship benefits the intern, must be similar to what the intern would be given in an educational setting or vocational school, that the intern's work does not replace workers who are regularly paid, and that the employer receives no immediate advantage from the intern's activities.

The wage and hour lawsuit is also asking for class-action status for what the plaintiffs claim include over one hundred unpaid interns on the many Fox Searchlight productions from September of 2005 until the lawsuit is resolved. The plaintiffs are seeking back payment under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) as well as New York state wage and hour laws, are also seeking an injunction that will ban Fox Searchlight from using improperly classified and unpaid interns in the future.

The film industry has had a long history of engaging in unpaid internships, claiming to provide highly coveted educational opportunities that help people to break into the industry. Fox Searchlight claims that the lawsuit has no merit, as the interns worked for the production company before the studio picked up the project--meaning that the interns were never employed or retained in any capacity under Fox Searchlight.

In cities throughout Orange County, California contact Howard Law, PC today for questions about your California labor and employment rights.

Interns, Unpaid by a Studio, File Suit, The New York Times, September 28, 2011

'Black Swan' Sued for Using Unpaid Interns, Reuters, September 29, 2011

"Black Swan" lawsuit stirs debate on role of interns, Reuters, October 5, 2011

'Black Swan' Unpaid Interns File Lawsuit Against Fox Searchlight, ABC News, September 29, 2011

Related Web Resources:

California Department of Industrial Relations (DIR): The Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, (DSLE)

U.S. Department of Labor: Wage and Hour Division (WHD), Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)

Department of Labor (DOL): Wage and Hour Division (WHD)

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